If it's not already too obvious, here's the quick recipe for an "in the 'hood, gangsta" flick. Assemble a group of rap artists who believe their appearances in music videos qualify them as serious actors, throw in a convoluted plot lifted from other films featuring drug dealing and lots of street murders, and litter the production with enough uses of "nigger," "bitch" "f*ck" and "motherf*ck" to meet the word count quota for writing a screenplay, and you'll almost be ready.
Finally, add a director who's cut his teeth on those music videos and knows how to arrange stylish shots but isn't clear how to helm something running more than ninety minutes, and you'll end up with a film like "Belly."
To its credit, the movie occasionally looks quite impressive and features a few decently constructed and executed sequences, but for the most part it's a hodgepodge of cliches from other "in the 'hood" films. Playing out like a lower socioeconomic class version of "Scarface" and featuring a shockingly poor narrative structure, the film's all flash with no substance beneath its highly polished surface -- despite its few, but too obviously preachy moments.
Scenes, as well as characters and plot direction appear and disappear without much warning or meaning as the film meanders its way through its convoluted story. Most of the characters are indistinguishable (not due to skin color, but instead their two-dimensional "qualities") and worse yet, they don't elicit the necessary responses from the audience to make the picture work.
Although writer/director Hype Williams (the afore mentioned former music video director) tries to lure the audience into sympathizing with the film's narrator (by showing that he has a family and -- big surprise -- eventually figures out that crime doesn't pay), there's little chance of that happening.
Since we don't care about and certainly don't like the characters, and with their simple thug status preventing their personalities from becoming larger than life creations (like many well-written and performed gangster characters often do), we're left with absolutely no stake in their, or the film's outcome.
Of course, if the picture's rambling plot was more cohesive and coherent, and if understanding some of the dialogue were easier (including a Jamaican drug lord whose mumbling and thick accent clearly cry out for much needed subtitles) things might have fared a bit better. Even so, and despite the obnoxious and nearly useless overuse of voice over narration trying to guide us along, the film elicits absolutely no interest or involvement from the audience.
Beyond the haphazardly constructed story, the rest of that fault lies with the poorly developed characters and the resulting flat performances. While there are plenty of volatile characters present, none of the performances are noteworthy.
Although DMX, a.k.a. Earl Simmons, shows some potential as the angry thug, and Taral Hicks (one of the few performers with real motion picture experience -- "A Bronx Tale") is believable in her role, the rest of the performers come off exactly like what they are -- musical artists trying to act. By now, and after the failed attempts of noteworthy artists such as David Bowie, Sting, and many others, they should know it's not as easy as it looks.
Inexplicably set in the near future (counting down through the months to New Year's Eve, 1999), the picture fully supports the old adage that you shouldn't judge a book -- or in this case, a movie -- by its cover. Although it's got that big, stylish music video production look going for it, the film may be pretty, but it clearly has a lousy personality once you get to know it. Showing occasional signs of potential, the film otherwise is a messy thud. We give "Belly" a 2 out of 10.